‘It was tough, but someone had to go to Tahiti and Fiji!’ laughs Osnat Shurer, producer for Disney’s latest animated adventure, Moana.
If this sounds like an excuse to holiday in an island paradise or two, nothing could be further from the truth.
Creating the first major cartoon to be set in Polynesia, Osnat and her directors, animation legends John Musker and Ron Clements—whose past credits include The Little Mermaid and Aladdin—felt authenticity was essential.
‘We came away with so much respect for the people of the Pacific islands and so much respect for their history and their culture,’ says Shurer.
One memorable sun-kissed encounter with a Tahitian elder became particularly crucial, adds Clements.
‘He said, ‘For years, we’ve been swallowed by your culture. For one time, can you be swallowed by ours?’’
It became the team’s mantra. ‘We had it up on the wall,’ says Shurer. ‘It was something we felt very strongly about.’
The story of the eponymous 16 year-old island girl (voiced by newcomer Auli’i Cravalho), Moana has already been accused in the media of cultural appropriation—the swathes of accompanying merchandise led Maori Party co-leader and MP Marama Fox to say that Disney is looking to ‘make a profit off the back of another culture’s beliefs and history’.
Others have criticised the ‘obese’ depiction of one Polynesian character for portraying a negative stereotype.
Yet there can be no doubting the Moana team’s intentions.
‘We made a personal connection with these people… we didn’t want to let them down’
The production formed what it called the Oceanic Story Trust; local archaeologists, anthropologists, linguists, master tattoo artists, choreographers, weavers, orators, elders and fishermen all became important consultants in the making of the film.
‘We made a personal connection with these people,’ says Musker. ‘We didn’t want to let them down – we wanted to do something they would embrace.’
The origins of the film lie in Musker’s interest in Polynesian myth, but he ended up diving far deeper into the islands’ culture and history.
‘We learned about things we really didn’t know about,’ says Clements, ‘about the history of navigation—how they were the world’s greatest navigators and took great pride in that.
‘And their connection to the ocean—they talked about the ocean as if it were real, as if it had feelings.’
After this first research trip in 2011, Musker and Clements returned to Disney to deliver an hour-long pitch to the animators, artists and others, conveying the key aesthetics and themes.
But, of course, this was just the beginning of a long back-and-forth, as issues as diverse as island flora and fauna, traditional costumes and cultural sensitivity were all broached.
No design would be locked until we had somebody take a look at it,” says Shurer.
For example, for the tattoo-clad character of Maui (voiced by Dwayne Johnson), the fabled demi-god who joins Moana on her adventures, the team called upon the services of Samoan master tattoo artist Peter Sulu’ape.
‘We checked in with him on every tattoo,’ says Shurer. ‘Everybody has tattoos because they convey your accomplishments. They’re not a decoration. They’re actually a statement on who you are.’
‘They talked about the ocean as if it were real, as if it had feelings’
Frequently, the studio held ‘open-houses’, bringing these cultural experts to Burbank, California, while Skype sessions became the norm.
Navigators, sailors and fishermen all helped the animators—already challenged with producing a film where eighty percent takes place on water—produce authentic boating scenes.
‘It was important that we wanted to get the sailing and the navigating correct,’ says Clements. ‘The animators really wanted it to. Everybody wanted it.’
In an era where Hollywood is frequently accused of whitewashing, Moana is almost entirely cast with Pacific islanders—from Johnson, who has Samoan heritage, to the Hawaii-born Cravalho and Nicole Scherzinger.
‘Because this was their world, and they had deep roots in this world, it made it important for them too,’ says Clements.
‘They had input as well – in terms of things being correct and respectful. So that really added a great deal to the movie.’
Intriguingly, Moana is also going to be the first movie ever to be dubbed into Tahitian, something urged by one of the film’s advisors, Hinano Murphy.
‘They’re working on the translation right now,’ says Musker.
‘It will debut in Tahiti in French, but two months later, there will be a Tahitian version, which will be used in schools to help kids hang on to their Tahitian language, so it isn’t overwhelmed by contemporary culture.’
Already, reports Musker, the film has been given the thumbs-up from people in the island communities.
‘Hinano…she came out for the premiere this past Monday night, and she was in tears and gave us big hugs,’ he says.
‘She was just grateful that the story was of a voyaging people, [made with] respect, with us taking to heart the lessons about the culture that she felt had been done right.’
Sometimes, Hollywood really does try its best.
Moana is out in cinemas now.
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Photos: Walt Disney Animation Studios | Atlaspix / Alamy